The One Jesus Loved

Readings: Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, John 20:1-18

Followers of Jesus throughout the world are gathering together on this Easter Sunday to celebrate the most basic confession of the Christian faith. He is risen! (Congregation responds: He is risen indeed!) So much has already been said in these few words.

The man born as Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One of God who revealed God’s true nature for once and for all. This Jesus died and was raised by the power of God (Acts 2:23-25), and because he is risen we know that there is no power, no other defining moment, no force of will or nature that can divert or dislodge or dissolve the claim of God’s love upon our lives!

He is risen! (Congregation responds: He is risen indeed!) Yes! And because of that, faithful believers and curious seekers have followed the same pattern set out in scripture since day one. It is the pattern we see in our Gospel reading, and it is most likely a pattern that you experienced this morning.

Some are always early, following a sense of duty like Mary. Some, like Peter, may find that just getting out of the house before the service begins puts them in a rush, especially if children are involved. “Where are my shoes? Why aren’t you out the bathroom yet? We’re leaving! Did anyone feed the dog? No, you don’t need breakfast. We have biscuits at church. Did you lock the door? I forgot something!” and that was just me talking to myself. Maybe that doesn’t describe you this morning, but I’m willing to be it describes more than me.

Maybe you were more like the disciple that Jesus loved, and you made a point to get to church early only to wait with some reverence before going in with the others.

Of course you may not feel that any of these describe you: the dutiful one, the one responding to a crisis, or the beloved one. Even so, there is something that brought us all here today just as it brought them so long ago. I wonder if we have found what we expected? We had biscuits. We have the lilies and the flowered cross. We have a brass quartet and beautiful music!

But is that what we came for? Did Mary or Peter or the Beloved Disciple get what they came for? Let’s start with Mary. As a woman she was fulfilling her duty of love and respect, but the stone was rolled away! How terrified she must have been. How appalling and offending and wounding it must have been to think that his dead body had been removed!

So she went to the people that she knew would care the most, Peter and the “Disciple that Jesus loved.” Doesn’t that seem odd to you – the Disciple that Jesus loved? It reminds me of a t-shirt I once saw that said in large bold letters, “Jesus loves you!” And in smaller print under that read, “But I’m his favorite.” Even though that seems to sum up everything that is wrong in Christianity, we find something just like it right here in our reading on Easter Sunday! What’s up with that? Well, the first thing to know is that we don’t really know who the Beloved Disciple was. Christian tradition holds that it was John, and some say it was James, the brother of Jesus.

Christopher Skinner, Associate Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, argues that maybe we aren’t supposed to know. To back this up, he observed that Peter and the Beloved Disciple are paired up at least five times in John’s gospel. Often their choices demonstrate the difference between doing what seems like the right thing and doing what is the most faithful thing. For example, only days before when Peter asked who would betray Jesus, the Beloved One laid his head upon Jesus’ chest and asked, “Is it I Lord?” Professor Skinner suggests that the Beloved One is someone – perhaps anyone – who is “close to the heart of Jesus” in the same way that Jesus was close to his father’s heart.

If we think about the Beloved Disciple this way, then this Easter morning changes the meaning behind the question we ask on Maundy Thursday. No longer do we ask, “Is it I, Lord, who will betray you?” Instead we must ask ourselves, “Am I the disciple that Jesus loves?”

Just as they looked at the empty tomb, we look at the empty cross and realize that there can be no other answer but, “Yes!” As we look to the cross with all of the flowers covering those nasty sins, we know that we have been drawn toward the heart of God by the undeniable force of God’s love. [Sins were nailed to the cross on Good Friday and covered over with flowers Easter morning.]

The question that remains is what to do next. Peter and the Beloved One went home. They seemed to understand that Jesus had risen, but it’s unclear what it meant to them at this point. Mary, it seems, was not convinced, and what happened next sounds like something from a dream. First there are two angles asking her why she is crying, and then a stranger who appeared to be the caretaker, asked her the same thing.

When she tried to explain he said her name and suddenly it was plain the he was indeed – not just in word or rumor – risen! Then he entrusted her with the very first message of hope. He said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This man, Jesus; her teacher, Jesus; their friend, Jesus, had demonstrated the heart of God, the character of God, the truest nature of God – and now he was returning to complete union with God.

And while there were many other signs and wonders, the very first message of hope that prepared all of the disciples for what was to come was entrusted to a woman. A woman who could not even testify in court, yet God chose this woman to proclaim the good news.

Who, then, will God choose next? Is it you? Is it me? Is it someone that we would never think to trust? Over and over throughout the Bible, God is revealed the most clearly through outsiders that people of good faith want to be protected from. Over and over again, God sets national pride aside for the compassion of human dignity. Over and over again, we are led to this moment. Over and over again we are led to the empty tomb, the empty cross, and the statement upon which hangs all of our hopes and fears – he is risen!

And when we say that he is risen indeed, it means that we have to do more than cover sins with flowers. It means that God has already done something about those sins, and now it is our turn! He is risen indeed! He is risen in your deeds and mine. He is risen in our understanding that each of us has been claimed as beloved, and that together we have become involved in the reconciling and liberating work of God.

Here in this place, new light is streaming. Now is the darkness vanished away. Here we will take the wine and the water. Here we will take the bread of new birth. Here at this table we will celebrate the hope we have in Christ’s resurrection. It’s not a hope that is limited to the afterlife. It’s a hope that demands a certain quality of life here and now.

It’s a hope that draws us into places of sorrow and reminds us that we still have a reason to give thanks and praise. So, let us sing and be glad! Let us enjoy time with family and friends and with bunnies and flowers, but let us remember that there is so much more to Easter than that. It is this day that gives us the reason to praise on every other day. It is this day that reminds us that we are truly beloved by God, and it is this day that reminds us that the one we least expect to be faithful may hold the word from God we most need to hear.

May God grant us the wisdom to hear, the strength to respond, and the will to submit to what God has done and is doing through the risen Christ. Amen.
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